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Posts Tagged ‘sociolinguistics in Scotland’

Some research stuff!


Ok, so I know it’s been ages since I last posted, something which is particularly embarrassing given the fact that my last post mentioned that I would be updating more regularly. And that hasn’t happened. Ugh. Part of the reason for this is because I’ve been settling back into my life in Birmingham after my Fulbright life in Pittsburgh came to an end, and to be totally honest, I’m still kind of finding my feet. It’s amazing how despite living in a city for years, even a short time away can make everything seem so new again. I mean, I spent nearly 10 years in Glasgow and now when I visit there, I hardly recognise the place, and the same happened a wee bit with coming back to Brum.

But after a few months back, things are slowly coming together. I’m back teaching, I’m back sitting in meetings, I’m back driving back and forth to work, and I’m gradually getting to grips with this UK life, but I think it’ll take another few months before I can honestly say things are back to the way they were before I left. What’s a bit worrisome is that I still find myself pining for Pittsburgh, about the places and people I met there, and while I had that a bit with Tucson, it’s more pronounced this time. I’m sure it will pass, but being melancholy about it certainly won’t help!

In other news, there’s been quite a lot happening in the world of sociolinguistics recently. For example, we had Lindsay Johns banging on about the power of the spoken word and how we should all be speaking Standard English. We had the banning of slang words in a high school in south London. There was the story about declining literacy rates in the UK and the slump in foreign language learning at university level. Oh, and there was also the story that ‘huh’ might be a linguistic universal. All of this, and more, continues to show how language is still very much front and centre on the national and international stage, although bizarrely, there’s not much in the way of input of actual linguists… That’s probably a story for another post, particularly as it relates to my own research on social media and the reporting of sociolinguistic research (I gave a talk about this at the recent Language in the Media conference in London).

Lastly, I’m happy to announce that I’ve had a flurry of things getting published recently, including an article on TH-fronting in Glasgow, which will be in English World-Wide and my own chapter on what ethnography can tell us about sociolinguistic variation over time, which will be in my edited volume Sociolinguistics in Scotland (and you can now buy it on Amazon!). Both of these pieces of work have been a wee while in the making, so as you can imagine, I’m pretty chuffed to have them done and dusted (especially the edited volume!). /blatentselfpromotion (!)

So yeah, I’ll try try try to start updating this more regularly, especially because it is quite good fun and it’s something a bit different from the usual academic-y kind of writing that I have to do. If only I could use some of my blog posts as REF outputs…

The Social Linguist

Sociolinguistics in Scotland: Coming to a bookstore near you!

February 14, 2012 4 comments

Last year, I had a great idea of doing an edited volume on sociolinguistic research in Scotland. This idea came to me while I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep, and my brain wouldn’t let me, so I started thinking about research (as you do when you’re an insomniac academic…). Anyway, I realised that it had been a long time since there had been a volume dedicated to research in Scottish speech communities, the last one being The Edinburgh Companion to Scots (2003). This volume was more of an introductory text to Scots and Scottish Standard English, and didn’t really look at sociolinguistic work in much detail.

But since 2003, the field of sociolinguistics in Scotland has come a long way, with researchers working on some really important and ground-breaking work, and I thought that it was a shame that none of this work had been collated in an edited volume. “Aha!” thought I, “I’ll do an edited volume on all the recent sociolinguistic work in Scotland and it’ll be amazing!” So, I started putting together the proposal, thinking about contributors, possible chapter contents, readership, competition, aims and objectives, etc etc etc.

Now writing a book proposal (whether monograph or edited) is a daunting task, because it’s up to you how the book looks, and there’s a lot that you need to include. As my first task, I had to decide who I wanted to be involved in the project and what kind of stuff they would write. You can send out a call for papers, but because the field of Scottish sociolinguistics is relatively small, I decided it would be better just to ask people I knew. Because of this, in order to avoid overlap, I had to decide roughly what the focus of each chapter would be and then get the people to write towards this content.

Once you’ve done this, you then need to get people to submit detailed abstracts of their chapters, along with references, and edit these so they’re all the same style. While this is all happening, you’ve still got to go ahead and work on the proposal. What are the aims of the book? What contribution will the book have to the field? What’s the justification that this book is needed? Who’s going to read it? More importantly, who’s going to buy it? Where will it sell? What other books is in competition with? Who’s contributing? Who are they? What have they done in the past? And so on and so on… My proposal ended up being about 10 pages long, which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t much, but once you add in the abstracts for 16 chapters, it starts to become a relatively large undertaking. Publishers usually give you guidelines on what to include in the proposal, and each publisher’s format is slightly different, so you need to make sure you follow it as closely as you can.

Once I felt reasonably comfortable about the package, I submitted the proposal to EUP in April last year. But unfortunately, this is where I made my first mistake. Sometimes, I lack the strength of my convictions, so rather than spend ages and ages collecting abstracts only to find out that the publisher wasn’t interested in the project, I simply included very short abstracts (about 50 words) on what each chapter would cover, along with the main proposal, in order to speed things up and get to a decision quicker. Unsurprisingly, when it went to the reviewers, they both said ‘we need more detail on the content’. This came back to me and since things were looking quite positive, I asked the contributors to submit a detailed abstract which I would then forward to EUP. This took about three months or so to get all of these collated, and then another month or so for the reviewers to go through them again. This was alongside my comments to each of the reviewers’ points, which also took a while to put together.

Things were looking quite good, but then it all started to unravel. I was asked if I would consider removing a few of the chapters because the editorial committee had reservations about them. I suggested that I give this feedback to the authors and ask them to address the issues raised, which was accepted. A month or so later, I submitted the new abstracts which were put in front of the editorial committee, only to be told that EUP wouldn’t be able to take the project forward due to issues with the proposed structure of the volume.

I was (rather understandably, I think) quite shocked by this decision, especially since things had been looking so positive. There were a few e-mails back and forth about whether anything could be done to change their minds, but alas, that door was closed and I had to make a decision: try someone else or give up?

As a tenacious Scotsman, I decided to go again, and I submitted it to Routledge. Thankfully, Routledge were on the ball and gave me a decision within a week: no. Dammit.

Right then, attempt number three, but not before some soul searching. Is this a good idea? How can I convince someone it’s a good idea? What is it missing? Am I just not hitting the right points? Should I get a job in Sainsburys? You get the idea.

But the fire in my mind that this was an idea worth pursuing was too strong, and I decide to put myself through it one last time. Enter Palgrave Macmillan.

I looked through the Palgrave website and found out that woop, they have a series in minority languages and communities. Wait, Scots is a minority language! Oh, and so is Gaelic! Wow, we’re onto a winner here! I look through their instructions and of course, it’s a whole new document to fill out. I dutifully go through it point by point, refining my thinking here and there, trying to think about a wider readership, go through it with a fine toothcomb and submit the proposal along with the detailed abstracts. By now, we’re in December 2011, almost 10 months after I first had the idea…

Palgrave are quick to respond and they’ll let me know how it goes, but at the moment, the commissioning editor is on holiday and it’ll be a while until she’s back. How dare people take holiday time during Christmas!! In January, I get an e-mail asking for reviewers and they’re going to consider it. Right, we’re getting somewhere now.

February, I get an e-mail saying that the reviewers have looked at it and that they’d like me to respond to their comments. The reviews are detailed, meticulous, and very helpful, and I take into account the majority of the recommendations in my response. I then send my comments back to the commissioning editor and wait for the inevitable ‘thanks, but no thanks’.

And now, to the point of this entry…

A week ago yesterday, I received an e-mail from Palgrave saying that they really liked the book and they want to publish it! Huzzah! And yesterday, I received my contract from them, so now, THE BOOK IS ON! It should be finished by March 2013 and hopefully be coming out towards the end of the year, so it’s all very exciting now.

Although it’s been a long, hard, sometimes painful slog which has made me really quite down sometimes, I’m very glad that I stuck with it (if only for validation that it actually was a good idea in the first place!). Rejections can be very difficult to deal with in any situation, and they can certainly make you wonder if you’re in the right job. As an academic, a big part of my job is to get published, and when that doesn’t seem to be going right, it’s hard to pick yourself up and keep on going, but it is, unfortunately, exactly what we have to do. It’s worth it in the long run.

– The Social Linguist

The Early History of Sociolinguistics in Glasgow

October 11, 2011 3 comments

The field of sociolinguistics is relatively new (at least in the ‘quantitative sociolinguistic’ format that William Labov developed through his work on Martha’s Vineyard), and Glasgow was one of the first places outside of the United States where Labov’s techniques and methods were applied in a large-scale sociolinguistic investigation (the other was Norwich in an influential study carried out by Peter Trudgill). The man who was key in developing the field of sociolinguistic enquiry in Glasgow was a researcher named Ronald Macaulay, and his book Language, Social Class and Education: A Glasgow Study (1977) was a milestone in sociolinguistic research in Scotland. Given that the tools and techniques of phonological analysis which we take for granted in contemporary sociolinguistic research (stuff like PRAAT, for example) were unavailable to Macaulay, the robustness of his findings are perhaps all the more remarkable, and his work really was a pioneering study in sociolinguistics. The work was based on preliminary research Macaulay had carried out with Gavin Trevelyan for a Social Science Research Council report on language, education and employment in Glasgow, working with teachers, employers and communities across the city. This report formed the basis of Language, Social Class and Education: A Glasgow Study, which also introduced more qualitative analysis of attitudes towards Glaswegian.

In terms of his analysis, Macaulay was interested primarily in how linguistic variation correlated with social class. With Glasgow being such a class-conscious city, the idea that how you spoke depended on which class you were in (marked through things like where you were from and what you did for a job) was an accepted social ideology, but it had never been tested empirically before Macaulay’s work. The study focused on five main phonological variables (Macaulay 1977: 27):

  1. The vowel in words like hit, kill, and risk
  2. The vowel in words like school, book, full, and fool (yup, Scottish English doesn’t contrast the final two words)
  3. The vowel in words like hat, sad, and back 
  4. The diphthong in words like now, down, and house
  5. The glottal plosive as an alternative to /t/ in words like butter and get

Now, obviously Macaulay’s work came out well before John Wells’ work on lexical sets, so he didn’t use them as a descriptor for the variables he was looking at. It was also before we knew more about the phonological structure of Scottish English (Macaulay 1977: 29), so in his analysis of the TRAP/BATH/PALM set¹, he only included those words which belonged to the TRAP set, rather than the BATH/PALM set. Through an auditory analysis of these variables (using a point-scale format and giving points to variants depending on whether they were ‘more’ or ‘less’ Glaswegian), and by categorising his speakers according to the Registrar-General’s classification of occupations (Macaulay 1977: 18), he was able to show how different social classes used different forms of the variable. For example, for variable 1 (the vowel sounds in hill), the highest rated variant was [ʌ] (scored at 5 points) and the lowest rated variant was [ɪ] (scored at 1 point), with a number of intermediary variants. So, the higher the mean index, the more likely speakers were to produce  [ʌ]-like tokens, and the lower the mean index, the more likely speakers were to produce [ɪ]-like tokens. The analysis showed that ‘speakers from the lower social classes were more likely to use a vowel that is more retracted and lowered than speakers from the higher social class groups’ (Macaulay 1977: 31). A relationship between linguistic variation and social class was found for the rest of the variables, ultimately giving a stronger empirical basis to folk-ideologies about language use in Glasgow.

But where Macaulay’s work really shines is in his discussion of the qualitative data, particularly the interviews with the teachers and employers. It is in this section of his book where interviewees make clear their attitudes and ideologies about Glaswegian and Glasgow. It was perhaps the following quote (Macaulay 1977: 94) which helped me pursue my own line of research:

“The accent of the lowest state of Glaswegian is the ugliest one can encounter, but that is partly because it is associated with the unwashed and the violent.”

It’s important to say that this isn’t Macaulay’s opinion on Glaswegian, but rather that of a university lecturer (quell surprise!), and when I read it, it hit home just how deeply-entrenched the negative stereotypes of Glasgow as a criminal, dirty and violent city are and how influential this image can be on people’s perception of Glaswegians.

Macaulay’s work was a massive inspiration to me during my own research, and I was lucky enough to meet him a few times at various conferences over the years, and it was this book in particular which was one catalyst to me pursuing my PhD thesis topic. I’m also hugely chuffed that he’ll be contributing a chapter on the history of sociolinguistic research in Scotland to an edited volume I’m currently working on, so watch this space!

The Social Linguist

1. Paul Johnston argues in his chapter ‘Regional Variation’ (in Edinburgh History of the Scots Language), the lexical sets which are used for English English don’t work for Scottish English because the distribution is different. For example, while TRAP, BATH and PALM are the lexical sets for American English and English English, these lexical sets all have the same vowel in Scottish English /a/. Johnston’s keyword for this vowel is CAT instead. Obviously, Paul’s work wasn’t around when Macaulay was doing his research, so he had to make do with what was available.